A liberty ship returns to life

September 20, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

JOHN MINOR stands in the steamy, clanking bowels of the S.S. John W. Brown and proudly surveys its steel veins and a steam engine the size of a city bus.

"It's Old Faithful," says the chief engineer. "These things will run when nothing else will."

Tomorrow he will rev the 2,500-horsepower engine and ease the 49-year-old ship away from the Dundalk Marine Terminal. Most of the 750 passengers who will be on board for the John Brown's first cruise of the Chesapeake Bay will be World War II veterans.

If the day is warm, the temperature inside the engine room could climb to 114 degrees, as it did during the ship's trial run last month. The metal handrails became so hot, they had to be doused with water.

Minor, 75, says he doesn't mind the heat, noise and oily smell of the engine room. He worked 42 years as chief operating engineer at the Sparrows Point shipyard. For the last two years, he has been one of more than 500 volunteers who have worked to turn the rusting old liberty ship into a cruise ship and museum.

When the John Brown slid into the water at the Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore on Labor Day 1942, it was a testament to the American spirit. Built in only 42 days and named after a labor leader, the John Brown was one of 2,700 liberty ships designed to haul arms, equipment and food to Allied troops during World War II.

President Roosevelt called them "ugly duckings." They were slow and their engines were outdated even when they were built. But with the war pressing upon the Allies, the U.S. needed to build ships quickly and cheaply. The John Brown is one of only two still in existence.

Tomorrow 67-year-old Jarvis T. Hughes of Pasadena will be standing on the deck of the John Brown with his wife, daughter and grandchildren as it sails to Annapolis.

"It's like a fantasy come true," Hughes says.

At 18, Hughes went to work building ships in the Fairfield yard. He was one of the thousands of men and women who helped build the ships from 1941 to 1945. Now retired, he spent the last two years working on a liberty ship again, this time helping to restore the John Brown.

Hughes says he may have helped build the John Brown in 1942, but he can't be sure because ships under construction had numbers, not names. But there is no doubt about the time he has spent helping replace the ship's electrical wiring and readying it for this "matron" voyage.

Many of the volunteers who came to work on the John Brown every Wednesday and Saturday are in their 60s and 70s. Some drove from Delaware and Pennsylvania to lovingly restore the ship as it was at the end of World War II. About three-fourths were merchant seamen, Navy gunmen or shipyard workers.

They have spent more than 90,000 hours overhauling the ship's engine, refurbishing its bunk rooms, repainting its decks and readying the ship for tomorrow's voyage.

Chief Mate Richard Bauman says "the Brown represents something for many of these people to look forward to on Wednesdays and Saturday." One joke on the ship is that the work on the John Brown has made "old men young and young men old."

Delacy Cook, 68, of Lutherville, once sailed on liberty ships. He is the John Brown's port engineer and has helped oversee the reconstruction of the ship's mechanical systems. "I kidded my wife and said, 'It looks like I'm going to finish up on one,' " he said.

Theodore A. Dietz, the ship's chief electrician, calls his work on the John Brown his "second career."

Dietz, 70, of Arnold, previously worked at the Maryland Shipbuilding and Dry Dock and as a marine consultant. He joined the effort to renovate the ship in May 1988.

"I committed myself for a year. And I'm still here. When they found out I was an electrician, they grabbed me."

Dietz, like the other volunteers, has spent incalculable hours in bringing the ship back to life, and his devotion is more than nostalgia.

"There's not enough young or even middle-aged people who understand what this United States did for the world during World War II," he said. "We ought to teach by repairing this vessel and sailing up and down the East Coast."

After the war, the John Brown probably survived because it was anchored in New York and converted into a maritime school. In the 1970s, the ship attracted the notice of a group of preservationists who tried to raise money to buy the ship and convert it to a maritime museum. In 1987, that group contacted John Boylston, a Solomons naval architect, and asked his advice on renovating the ship. He estimated that refurbishing it would cost $2 million.

The preservationists couldn't afford it and were stymied in their efforts to find a permanent place to berth the ship. The ship was towed to the James River where it sat rusting. Boylston and his friend, Brian Hope, a Chesapeake Bay pilot, joined the effort to save the John Brown and located a pier in Baltimore. The ship was hauled up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore in 1988 and rededicated, and the work began.

Hope is chairman of Project Liberty Ship, which has raised $1 million for the renovations. An estimated $5 million in labor in materials has been donated. Another $200,000 is needed to complete the work, he says.

The ship's future still remains uncertain. The preservationists want to move it from Pier One on Clinton Street to Fells Point, where it will be more accessible to the public as a maritime museum. They also are planning other cruises.

The ultimate dream, Boylston says, is to sail the John Brown to Normandy, France, in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, if the ship proves up to the task.

If the volunteers on the ship have any say, it will be.

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